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Once eager to tout Trump friendship, Rick Scott now plays it down

Since launching his Senate campaign earlier this month, the governor has avoiding mentioning the president.
President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Rick Scott at a business session with members of the National Governors Association, where they discussed school shootings, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Feb. 26, 2018. (Tom Brenner/The New York Times)
Published Apr. 27, 2018
Updated Apr. 27, 2018

WASHINGTON — Tuxedo-clad and surrounded by the mainstream media and celebrities, Donald Trump scowled his way through the 2011 White House Correspondents' Dinner, ridiculed by President Barack Obama over the birther conspiracy, relentlessly mocked by Seth Meyers.

"Donald Trump has been saying that he will run for president as a Republican, which is surprising since I just assumed that he was running as a joke," said the comedian.

As cameras swept toward Trump, a man a couple seats away could be seen craning back to gauge his reaction: Rick Scott.

At the White House Correspondents dinner in 2011, Donald Trump looks on as he was roasted by President Barack Obama and comedian Seth Meyers. At right, Florida Gov. Rick Scott checks Trump’s reaction. (Screengrab from C-SPAN)

Trump and Scott's pairing seven years ago this weekend was coincidental — they were guests of the Washington Post — but the Florida governor witnessed a key moment in the rise of Trump.

Whether or not the future president wanted to avenge the laughter, he could find kinship that April night through his tablemate: a hard-charging businessman who turned to politics later in life and waged war with the establishment, winning office on an outsider's message focused on jobs.

"It seemed mean-spirited to me," Scott recalled in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. "He got roasted."

But as Scott has played up his friendship with the president, using it to boost his profile and score political victories, he has avoided mentioning Trump since launching a campaign against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson earlier this month.

The distance speaks to the challenges Republicans face in the midterm elections but also the transactional nature of Scott's relationship with the president, getting close but not too close, the ultimate political balancing act.

"I'm going to run on what I've accomplished and what I want to get done," Scott, 65, said in a brief interview during a fundraising trip to Washington.

Donald Trump and Rick Scott, via Twitter

The relationship is understandable yet odd, unbound Trump and scripted Scott, a fast-food fanatic and a workout fiend. It doesn't appear to be as deep as Scott has implied — by telling people he's personally known Trump two decades — or cares to disclose.

Asked about that history, Scott said he had no recollection of where they first met other than it was a probably a business conference. "I never did a business deal with him," he volunteered.

Trump, who has spent considerably more time in Florida as president than in New York, could weigh heavily on Scott's bid.

Privately, Trump has asked reporters about Scott's chances against Nelson and studied the latest polls. He's keenly aware of Scott's quirks, but observers say their bond is real.

Days after Scott entered the race, Trump called to wish him luck. Since Trump became president they have spoken about every week or two.

"Everybody discounted Rick Scott's chances, similar to Donald Trump," said Joe Gruters, a state representative from Sarasota and one of several Scott allies to work on Trump's campaign. "I don't necessarily see the governor hanging out by the pool with Trump, but they both understand economics and what it takes to put deals together.

"I think Rick Scott probably wants to be the president and would not be surprised if he tried to follow in those footsteps once that opportunity became available."

• • •

Scott's cautiousness has at times irritated Trump, who in 2013 contributed $125,000 to the governor's political committee as he looked to advance business interests, including gambling at a golf resort in Doral he bought the year before.

Well before people paid much attention to Trump's Twitter feed, he was pumping up Scott and using it to push gambling. And he maintained a close watch. "Governor Rick Scott of Florida did really poorly on television this morning. I hope he is O.K.," Trump wrote in June 2015.

One of the earliest times they were publicly together was in March 2011 at Trump Tower in Manhattan. Scott was on a tourism promotion and recognized Trump's knack for publicity. A drawing was held for a weekend at Mar-a-Lago, Trump's Florida estate, but it never was awarded. The shabby-looking winner was sent away with cash.

Afterward, Trump mused with Scott about running for office. He had long talked about running for president but at the time was fixed on governor, viewing it as a stepping stone. Scott passed along the phone number of his pollster, Tony Fabrizio, who years later joined Trump's presidential campaign. Susie Wiles, who ran Scott's 2010 campaign, also signed up.

Scott narrowly won re-election in 2014 and began to boost his national profile, hosting a forum for Republican presidential hopefuls the next June in Orlando. Not invited? Trump, who was incensed by the snub.

With Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio in the field, Scott could stay above the fray, but in January 2016, he began to move toward Trump, who had crushed expectations.

"I know Donald Trump personally and while I currently have no plans to endorse a candidate before Florida's March presidential primary, there is no doubt that Donald is a man who speaks and tweets his mind freely," Scott wrote in a piece for USA Today.

"I think he is capturing the frustration of many Americans after seven years of President Obama's very intentional government takeover of the American economy."

Florida Gov. Rick Scott introduces Donald Trump at a campaign rally at the Tampa Convention Center in downtown Tampa in 2016. (LOREN ELLIOTT/Times)

The day after Trump won the Florida primary, Scott endorsed him.
Even then, he maintained space, finding reasons not to show up at numerous Trump's rallies. Part of that was due to legal concerns because Scott chaired a pro-Trump super PAC that spent about $20 million in the race. But others saw it as a buffer, even self-serving because the committee gave Scott access to national donors.

"You can help yourself and the president, build up your Rolodex. It was smart on his end," said Jennifer Carroll, Scott's first lieutenant governor, who was pushed out after an investigation into a sweepstakes company she once consulted for.

Still, Carroll, who spoke at numerous Trump rallies and served on his national diversity council, said: "You have people who have been with the president through thick or thin, negative or good press. Those people showed conviction. I'm not saying Gov. Scott lacks conviction. But it's not easy being out there in the trenches. It was a calculated decision not to be out in front with the president."

Trump's controversies created moments for the careful governor.
When Trump sparred with the Muslim father of a slain U.S. soldier, Scott told reporters, "I'm never going to agree with every candidate on what they're going to say." When the Access Hollywood tape surfaced, Scott deemed Trump's language toward women "pretty disgusting."

Many Republicans kept a distance from the GOP convention in Cleveland, but Scott gave a speech extolling Trump as tough on terrorism and an outsider, a message that harkened back to Scott's entry in politics — and his future ambition. "This year, we get to fire the politicians," he exclaimed.

Trump's victory over Hillary Clinton thrust Scott in an enviable role and he embraced the president mightily, throwing a Florida ball at the inaugural featuring the Beach Boys and making repeated trips to Washington in his role as governor. There were steak (and ketchup) dinners with Trump and selfies with Ivanka, an Oval Office pose with the beaming commander-in-chief.

Scott eschewed talk of joining the administration, his Senate ambition already well known, but lent himself as an expert on health care during the attempt to dismantle Obamacare, generating headlines before the effort collapsed.

President Donald Trump listens to Florida Gov. Rick Scott, right, during a meeting with U.S. Mayors and Governors for an Infrastructure Summit in the State Dinning Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, June 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

He shrewdly used his connections with Trump, exacting a promise for federal funding for the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee and getting $1.5 billion to restore a health care program that pays for the uninsured — victories he's sure to highlight on the campaign trail.

"I am proud that Florida finally has a partner in Washington that is fighting hard for issues important to families in our state," Scott said.

Early this year, Scott got Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to fly to Tallahassee and they declared that Florida was being removed from consideration from a broad Trump plan for offshore drilling. Though the brazen, political nature of the announcement has caused headaches for the administration, Scott said he got assurances directly from Trump.

"I have a good working relationship with him," Scott said in the recent interview from a bakery in Washington, two aides at the table.

• • •

Though Trump would eagerly campaign for Scott, it's unlikely at this point. The stream of controversy threatens to turn off the women and independent voters Scott will need to overcome Sen. Nelson, a three-term Democrat who's counting on anti-Trump feelings to help in what is expected to be a close election.

Scott, who has set an aggressive pace so far with campaign events, emphasizes that he ran in 2010 without endorsements and is again hewing tightly to an outsider image. It's also a way to sidestep Trump, but then again, Scott did it first.

"The Trump voters know Scott is an ally," said Brian Burgess, a former aide to Scott. "As long as he remains loyal to the principles that those voters care about, he's got all the mileage he needs from the relationship. He doesn't need to keep ringing the Trump bell. He's going to run on his jobs record."

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Florida Gov. Rick Scott after signing S. 544 the Veterans Choice Program Extension and Improvement Act in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., on April 19, 2017. (Molly Riley / Pool via CNP)